Yellowstone via Rail (& a bit of car): The Train + Megafaunapalooza!

[Ed Note: I’ve posted my best pictures from this trip here on Flickr, but note that I have no wolf shots (small zoom!) – luckily someone else who was watching our first wolf, had a scope with a camera – so you can also check those shots here. (Thanks again Nina Blakley!)]

Kimberly & I just got back from a great vacation to Yellowstone that provided me with two great revelations, both worthy of their own blog post! But I’m passing the savings on to you, dear reader, because I’ll write them up here as one combo-blog post – saving you 50% of the required reading! ‘Deeptrouble is all about value!

The small but gloriously relaxing revelation was taking Amtrak to Salt Lake City. The big giant MEGAFAUNAPALOOZA revelation was Yellowstone National Park. You can read on for both or skip to which ever seems most interesting (train or wildlife) & if nothing else, check out the pictures here.

Subadult Grizzly Bear - Jenny Lake, Grand Tetons

The Train: Kicking Back on Amtrak

For people who love to travel and are concerned about the environment, the carbon cost of flights is a big problem1. Carbon offsets tend to be crap & there seem to be few good options. But at least for some trips, the train is an excellent low-carbon alternative, and better still, it has some serious upsides.

Kickin it on the train!

 

The biggest upside is that the trip is so relaxing. The combination of large spacious seats, no flying/driving stress, nice amenities (larger seats with a lot of leg room, electrical outlets(!), and the ability to walk about freely, a viewing car, a lounge area, and a dining car) and a truly spectacular view (the California part!) make for a really pleasant way to get somewhere.

If we had flown, it would have been go-go-go to the airport, short unpleasant flight (let’s face it: all flights are at best slightly unpleasant), and then go-go-go-adventure time into Yellowstone.

If we had driven, it would have taken 12 hours minimum, but when you add in stops it’s about the same & that, notably, doesn’t include sleep. Plus driving is “ON” time where you have to pay attention and stay alert, the opposite of relaxing over the long haul.

The 16 hour train ride, by contrast, forces you to slow down & relax. You have nowhere you have to go, and nothing you have to do. All you can do is enjoy the scenery from the viewing car, read or play (iPad FTW!), chat or nap.

There are other upsides as well. A big one is that he train is the cheapest of the 3 options at $90 a ticket2. Another is that it is super convenient to get to Amtrak from San Francisco (BART to Richmond station, or Amtrak bus to Emeryville Station).

Of course there are downsides, the biggest of which is that it just takes so much longer relative to flying (still waiting for more US High Speed Rail!). The surprise for me was that I loved the slower pace: I’m pretty poor at taking relaxing vacations, even when I need them. Mostly this is because I bore easily: I went to Cabo San Lucas over Christmas once & flew back early lest I clawed my eyes out. Also, if I want to relax and chill out, I’d rather do it at home in San Francisco: I’m all about the staycation!

However, being on the train was just enough of a slowdown that it provided for a real break, without it being long enough for me to get bored.  It provides the mental & physical space to take a deep breath and shift gears. I LOVED IT. It also didn’t hurt that we have close friends in Salt Lake City that we got to have an excellent visit with (Zornado!). 

Once in Salt Lake, we got a rental car for the 8 hour drive to our final goal, Yellowstone! Its a pity there is no longer passenger rail service there!

Other train bits:

  • Our trip was too short for the sleeper car, so we slept in our seats. They’re much better than plane seats for snoozing, but nowhere near as good as a couch.
  • Sadly no Wifi, but maybe this will change as some Amtrak routes have it.
  • I’m told the Utah to Denver stretch is even more beautiful.
  • We didn’t eat any of the train food. K says it’s bad from prior experience.
Skies over Nevada
 
 

Yellowstone & My Apology to The Megafauna of America

Dear Megafauna of America.

Ever since I was a boy, dreaming of the beasts of Africa, I dismissed you as “boring.”

I owe you an apology:

I’m sorry, I couldn’t have been more wrong. You are seriously awesome too. I hope we are still friends.

‘deep

I have spent a lot of the travel time in my life on safaris in Africa, the Americas & Asia. And while nothing will probably ever match my time in Africa, the three days we spent driving around Yellowstone were nonetheless some of the best encounters with wildlife I’ve ever had, and that is saying something.  I went in with expectations to see wildlife (“we’ll be with an expert guide!”), I did not expect to see so many interactions between wildlife! That was something unprecedented in all my travels to see megafauna. 

And while I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to go, the astounding thing is that it is all in our own backyard: Yellowstone is simply not that far away. And if that wasn’t enough, it would be worth visiting for the geothermals and scenic beauty alone.

Black Bear & Cubs, Yellowstone

 

The Trip

Kimberly & I drove up from Mormopolis (a.k.a. Salt Lake City, Utah) via a route that would take us through the Grand Tetons National Park as well. It was an 8 hour trip mostly through Wyoming with chunks of Utah & Idaho thrown in. We caught glimpses of the grandeur of the Grand Tetons, but as it was rainy & grey, they were a bit muted & we decided we’d drive back down that way in hopes of a better view.

Soon after the Grand Tetons, we entered Yellowstone itself and a few hours later (after numerous stops to check out cool geothermal features) we found our small cabin at the historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, deep within the park. We had signed up for an expert-led wildlife tour through the national park’s website, which led us to believe we were going to be roaming the park with a ranger. In actuality, the Park Service contracts out longer educational tours with the Yellowstone Association, a non-profit focused on preserving the park through educational programs.

It turns out we had stumbled into the perfect way to see wildlife in Yellowstone!

We were signed up for YA’s “Spring Wolf & Bear Discovery” tour which basically included 4 nights lodging, and 3 daylong game drives & hikes along the northern parts of the park, and most of our meals. Going in the spring is cheaper ($700 per person) & less crowded than summer & is a great time to watch for wolves and bears.

Each day we awoke early, met up with our guide & then headed out to look for beasts. Carolyn Harwood, our twentysomething guide & driver, was a great group leader: fun, enthusiastic, and really knowledgable. There were 11 of us tourists and Carolyn roaming the park in a small bus. Lunches were provided, as well as breakfasts for the two extra-early days. We also went for short educational hikes. Every day we’d return in the evening before dinner time. 

Most of our roaming was in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley along the park’s northern edge.  We learned very quickly why the area has been called “America’s Little Serengeti”. About 30 miles long, with a mile and half wide valley floor, Lamar Valley is an amazing place to watch wildlife & is known to be the best place in the world to watch wolves.  The flat valley floor, combined with road access that is raised above the floor makes for long, clear sight lines.  The abundant prey animals and abundant helpful wildlife viewers make spotting things to be relatively easy & you don’t feel like you are impacting the wildlife as much as some places, because you are generally viewing from a distance. We saw SO MUCH! (see below…)

On top of the locale, the tour itself added a lot to make the wildlife viewing even better than it would be if we had gone by ourselves.  There were lots of educational components and we spent lots of time learning about the park, it’s history, and its wildlife.  Having someone knowledgeable and eager to answer questions was really great.  Also to have someone with experience as to where to look as well as the ability to tap into colleagues doing the same thing over the course of the week was super helpful.  And on a practical level, various things like providing us with spotting scopes3, to having someone else do the driving, to knowing where the bathrooms all really enhanced the quality of the experience dramatically.

All in all, it was exciting, remarkably informative, and a hell of a lot of fun. I couldn’t recommend the Yellowstone Association tour more highly & am looking forward to doing more of them!

After the 3 day tour, we spent the next day, Thursday, driving around the park to see as many of the geothermal features as we could (Old Faithful!) & to catch some of the other park highlights. We then headed to the Grand Tetons National Park & spent the night.  Friday was our last day in the area & we took a (EVENTFUL!) day hike & and got to see the true grandeur and beauty of the Grand Tetons before driving our way back to Salt Lake to take the train home.

Moose!

 

Wildlife Details

For a full list of all the wildlife we saw see below, but here are a bunch or things that stuck out from all the rest:

  • On Tuesday, at the end of the day, we were leaving the Lamar Valley and had pretty much given up on the big predators (since they are more active at dawn & dusk).  I consoled myself knowing that it had been a really fun day nonetheless, and that we had another day still to go.  As we were driving out, we noticed one of the many herds of bison down in the valley all facing in the same direction and packed together. We already knew there was a bison carcass in the area & Carolyn explained that they sometimes investigate their dead & appear curious. We had checked that spot earlier because the carcass had been a wolf feeding site. Suddenly, we realized that there was a wolf near the bison that was the focus of their attention. It seemed that the wolf was going for the carcass & a single bison was charging it. After a while, the bison moved away, and the wolf disappeared into a gully. However Carolyn knew that the wolf couldn’t get out of the gully without us seeing it, so we waited and watched. Sure enough, 20 minutes later, the wolf popped up and we got to watch it feed at length. You could just see it in the distance with the naked eye, but through binoculars and especially spotting scopes, it was truly a beautiful animal.
  • Wednesday morning, the first place we stopped was just before the Lamar Valley at a place called at Slough Creek. Wolves had been spotted on an elk carcass there the night before. Through scopes, at a great distance, we were able to spot what looked like a bison on top of something. And then the “bison” moved and you could just make out that it was a really really large grizzly bear. Basically, the bear was napping on the carcass to protect it & claim it as its own (a strategy I may begin to employ myself.). Every once in a while it would stir to chase off a really large raven or feed, but mostly it just sat there: a vast brown lump. We checked back later in the day & again that night (just at dusk) and the bear never really moved much.
  • After leaving the bear at Slough Creek, we returned to the Lamar Valley and found a wolf feeding on a carcass, again with tense bison nearby. As the wolf was feeding, it was attracting some coyotes and ravens as well. 
  • Within a few minutes, as we were watching the wolf, we realized there was a mother black bear along almost the same sightline though clearly a good bit farther away. She was feeding on a pronghorn carcass with a cub. However the cub kept wandering off & the mother was clearly struggling between keeping the cub close & protecting the carcass from circling coyotes & ravens. We watched as several times the mother chased either the cub or coyotes and ravens. Eventually she gave up and rambled off after the wayward cub into the trees.
  • After all our wildlife viewing in the Park, the one thing I was disappointed in was that we hadn’t had a really good grizzly bear sighting: all our sightings had been far off in the distance. Then, on Thursday, after we had left Yellowstone and were on the last hike of our trip, in the Grand Tetons National Park, there one was. A juvenile grizzly bear was just ambling along a ridge just close enough to be safe!  Amusingly enough, some 5 minutes later, we encountered a bull moose, much too close (maybe 20 yards away) along the trail & hustled away.
  • We spent a lot of time talking about the wolf reintroduction effort which culminated in the wolf releases in 1995 and 1996.  One of the educational highlights of the tour was the hike to one of the historic acclimation pens from which wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone.  The 40 year effort, the continuing controversy around it, and what it says about the shifting (& for some, sadly not shifting) perspectives on ecology and a large predators in America is completely fascinating. I can’t do this subject justice here in my blog but see the media notes below for more.
  • As a tiny cap to all the megafauna experiences, on Saturday morning as we were riding the train home through Nevada, the conductor came on to tell us that mustangs were almost always seen in the area we were passing through. Sure enough, there in the distance standing on a ridge, was a horse, presumably free, munching away on some shrubbery. 🙂

More Please!

A week later, my head is still spinning from Yellowstone. I’ve read numerous Wikipedia articles, am halfway through my second Yellowstone book and am planning to start another, & have watched various National Geographic and Nature episodes.4 Kimberly & I will be going back & hopefully soon. I can’t wait.

Old Faithful

 

The Wildlife List

All links are for more info from the Wikipedia.

Sunday 5/19/2013 (the drive up from Utah)

Monday 5/20/2013 (Tour Day 1 – shorter)

Tuesday 5/21/2013 (Tour Day 2 – longer)

Wednesday 5/22/2013 (Tour Day 3 – longest)

Thursday 5/23/2013 (Leaving Yellowstone on our own)

Friday 5/24/2013 (Day Hiking in Grand Tetons)

Saturday 5/25/2013 (From the Train)

 
1. We try to limit how many flights we take & take fewer long distance trips than we normally would. It’s a struggle.↩

2. So the train is $180 for two of us, whereas the car is about $120 for gas + $150 for wear & tear (based on standard calculations).↩

3.We had purchased a really good pair of binoculars, which were a big help, but the spotting scopes are a game changer: if you are going to Yellowstone, look into renting some. The YA had decent Nikon ones, and one couple in our group had a really nice Swarovski one that they were very generous with (thanks Fred & Judy!) I wish I had such nice scopes on my other safaris.↩

4.A few media notes:

↩

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